Nurse Edith Cavell: No hate in her heart

March 6, 2018

Mount Edith Cavell with hiking trail in foreground. Photo Steve B. Davis

Jasper National Park in my home Province of Alberta, Canada has Mount Edith Cavell. My daughters and I hiked up to its base a couple of summers ago. They asked the obvious question, who was Edith Cavell and why is this peak named after her.


1930 Canadian postage stamp showing Mt Edith Cavell.

Edith Cavell was a British nurse during World War I. She ran a medical clinic in German occupied Belgium. She started a clinic there before the war and trained Belgian nurses. Once the war started she returned but eventually most of Belgium was occupied by the Germans.

As as nurse she saved countless lives of soldiers from both sides. She also helped some 200 Allied soldiers and many civilians escape from occupied Belgium. Edith helped them reach the unoccupied  Netherlands or even back to England.

The Germans became suspicious of her activity and eventually arrested her charging her with treason against Germany even though she was a British citizen. She had broken German law by assisting enemy soldiers.

Found guilty by a German court martial she was sentenced to death. Despite pleas for mercy she was executed by a German firing squad on October 12, 1915. Her execution received international condemnation and extensive press coverage. Edith was only 49 years of age at her death.

She was a symbol of German barbarism for the remainder of the war. Edith was a revered figure. Stamps and coins were issued to honour her. Many places bear her name around the world including Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper National Park.

One of her most famous quotes was, “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hate in my heart”


Nurse Edith Cavell. Photo Public Domain

Further Reading
Wikipedia – Edith Cavell


War Horses in World War I

February 22, 2018

World War I saw the use of trucks, tanks, machine guns and airplanes, but it also relied on the horse. An estimated 8 million horses were used by all combatants during the conflict from 1914-1918. This is considered the first and only time horses were widely used in a global conflict.

Pack Horses at Vimy Ridge-LAC PA-001229

Pack horses taking ammunition to front at Vimy Ridge April 1917. Photo Library & Archives Canada, PA-001229

Horses and mules proved more reliable than mechanized transport and it took far less to look after them. They served as pack animals hauling food, water, ammunition and medical supplies to troops at the front. Horses proved invaluable moving artillery pieces around in the mud and slime of the battlefield.

The Canadian Army Service Corps (CASC) Veterinary Services tended to sick and wounded horses. They had a Mobile Services group to look after horses in the field. There was even an evacuation station at the rear where sick or wounded animals could be taken for care. The British and the Germans also had units assigned to tend to horses.

At Vimy Ridge for example some 500,000 horses pulled artillery pieces into position, brought supplies, ammunition and shells from the rear to forward positions in preparation for the attack. To keep the horses going about 600,000 gallons of water per day was required.

Conditions faced by horses in World War I were harsh, Many died from starvation, disease and exhaustion while many died from artillery fire.

The British Army used over 1 million horses and mules during the war. More than 400,000 of them were killed. In one day at the Battle of Verdun more that 7,000 horses perished.

Horses became more difficult to replace as the war went on. In order to meet the need horses were purchased from Australia, Argentina, Canada and the United States. In Britain horses were conscripted from farms but that supply was soon exhausted.

At the end of the war many horses were put down as too ill or too old. Many were sold to slaughterhouses or to locals in the war zones. Quarantine restrictions also prevented many from being returned to their countries of origin.

Cavalry units did exist and were used at various times. It became clear horses were vulnerable to trenches, machine guns and barbed wire. Soldiers on horseback were dismounted and fought as infantry.

The British mounted a cavalry charge early in the war near Mons in 1914. It was a disaster. Later in 1918 they charged at the German lines once again it was unsuccessful. Out of 150 horses only 4 survived the charge the rest cut down by German machine gun fire.


Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron. Photo of painting by Alfred Munnings. Photo Canadian War Museum.

Canada’s most noted cavalry unit was the Lord Strathcona’s Horse. Most of their war was spent as infantry, but they did mount a charge in the Last One Hundred Days of the war with minor success. At the Battle of Moreuil Wood mounted cavalry of 100 horses and men charged the German lines defended by roughly 300 enemy. The Germans surrendered but three-quarters of the cavalry were killed or wounded. The success of the attack was due to the complete surprise of the Germans seeing the mad charge of the horse soldiers bearing down on them at breakneck speed. This became known as the “Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron” after the commander who was killed in the attack. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross for this action.

“War Horse” a 1982 book by British author Michael Mopurgo and later made first into a stage play and then a movie by Steven Spielberg depicts the life of a war horse quite graphically. It also shows the love and affection many of the soldiers had for these valiant beasts.

Vimy Ridge: Canada’s Defining Moment

April 8, 2017

Canadian stamps issued to commemorate Vimy Ridge. They show the Vimy Memorial and preserved trenches nearby. The memorial was completed in 1936. 

This post is one in my continuing series related to World War I or The Great War as it is also called. It has been 100 years since these events took place that still impact us today.

One hundred years ago on the morning of April 9, 1917 the Canadian Corps consisting of four divisions commenced the attack on a key high point in the Arras sector of the Western Front. This was Vimy Ridge a strategic point held by the Germans since the early days of the war. Numerous attempts had been made to capture it before without success now it was Canada’s turn.

Within the first two days it was captured and in the hands of the Allies thanks to the detailed planning and execution of the Canadian Corps. The cost was high, 10,600 casualties including 3,598 killed.

Canada’s victory gained us much respect and admiration from the world. There is no doubt in this writer’s mind it was a pivotal point in the history of our nation. We became more than just one of the colonies. We became proud to be Canadians.

Today we do not celebrate a victory so much as we remember the sacrifice of the men who gave their all serving Canada. We remember and mourn those who paid the ultimate price on the battlefield of Vimy. May we never forget these men.

My thoughts are with them today. I am proud to be Canadian.

Vimy Ridge: Personal connections.

March 21, 2017
Waiter-Herbert Tracy-WWI-Death-Newspaper Clipping

My Great Uncle – article in Toronto paper in 1917.

One hundred years ago on April 9, 1917 the Canadian Corps fought a battle that told the world we were no longer a colony, but a true nation. This was the first time during the Great War all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together in a single operation. Some 97,184 soldiers of the Canadian Corps participated in the battle

Vimy Ridge located in France was a strategic high point the Allies wanted to capture to gain an advantage over the Germans. Attempts to capture it had been made on several occasions before without success. The Canadians had gained a name for themselves as tough, never say die soldiers, so they were called in to attempt to capture the objective.

Canadian commanders did the following key things to prepare for the battle,

  • built tram-ways and plank roads to enable the movement of over 800 tons of ammunition, rations and equipment per day leading up to the battle.
  • had 72 kilometres of pipe laid to supply 600,000 gallons of water per day for the horses.
  • amassed 50,000 horses to move artillery pieces and shift supplies.
  • constructed a full-scale mock-up of the ridge behind the lines so troops could rehearse movements. This the first time this was done.
  • a series of underground caves and tunnels were constructed close to and under the ridge.

The attack was planned for 5:30 am on the morning of April 9th. Several hours before all the men were given a hot meal and a tot of rum.

The attack began on schedule at 5:30 am behind a creeping artillery barrage. The artillery barrage moved several yards each time and the infantry followed behind. This was a tactic that gave the soldiers some protection as it forced the Germans to keep their heads down and caused confusion in their ranks. The first wave went forward through the underground tunnels to catch the Germans by surprise. Some of these caves and tunnels were large enough to hold an entire battalion. Artillery bombardments had been on-going for several days ahead of the attack, this was to confuse the enemy and keep them guessing as to when the actual attack was coming.

Within the first hour the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions reached the first objective and by 8 am the final objective. The battle continued for two days with another two for mopping up. Victory was declared April 10th. The Canadians accomplished what no other troops had been able to. The cost was high with Canadians suffering 10,600 casualties including 3,598 killed. Over 4,000 Germans were captured during the battle.

This battle is personal for me because members of my family took part. As a genealogical researcher I spent a lot of time looking into our military history. I discovered connections to Vimy Ridge and other battles of World War I.

Cuthbert “Bert” Sendell:
My grandfather on mother’s side served in the Canadian Army Service Corps (CASC) and was at Vimy Ridge. He survived and came home. Interestingly he enlisted as Herbert Strain, his biological father’s first name and his stepfather’s last name.

Herbert Tracy Waite:
Grandmother’s big brother who unfortunately was killed at Vimy. He was only 20 years of age and left behind a wife and children back home. The newspaper article at top is a document I found during my research. Date of his death was actually April 13, 1917, but reporter didn’t have a lot of information at that time. Very sad reading and this is just one example of thousands. He is commemorated at the Vimy Memorial in France, but is one of thousands whose body was never found.

Vimy Ridge was just an entry in the history books to me, but that history came alive when I discovered my ancestors contributed to Canada’s war effort. This coming April 9th I will be proudly thinking about their sacrifice one hundred years ago.

Suggested Reading:
Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918, Cook, Tim, Penguin Canada 2008
Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War, Nicholson, G.W.L., McGill-Queen’s University Press 2015
(First published in 1962)
Vimy, Berton, Pierre, McClelland and Stewart 1986
The Vimy Ridge Foundation website

The Great War 1914 – 1919 – Centennial

January 2, 2014


The year 2014 marks 100 years since The Great War, better known as World War I began. The war to end all wars in fact spawned the even more destructive Second World War. This year will mark 75 years since its violent forces swept the world.

As a genealogist and historian I have long been fascinated by the cause and events of these two conflicts. Both these wars changed the world forever in many ways.

What caused this war of 1914? Europe at the time consisted of many ambitious countries who were allied through treaty with many other nations. All these nations had dreams of grandeur through expansion and imperialism. The British, French, Germans, Russians, Italians, and Ottoman empires were all competing economically and militarily. When the Archduke was assassinated one blamed the other. Foolish pride and inflexibility carried the day. Military forces were massed on borders, ultimatums were issued, and finally attacks took place. The domino effect resulted in a world war. Kings, dictators and politicians had their war into which young men were the fodder to fuel the fires.

My grandfather like most Canadians enlisted in the Canadian Army when war was declared in 1914. Young men rushed to serve King and country and to do their duty. To many it was a great adventure. When they discovered the terrible reality of modern warfare the adventure turned to survival. These young men did their duty and served valiantly, but at a horrible cost.

Has mankind learned its lesson? Much as I’d like to believe so it has not. Wars constantly rage throughout our world today. Fortunately none have escalated into a worldwide conflict, but we have had our near misses, Korea, The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War to name a few examples.

We must understand our history and learn from it, otherwise we are sure to repeat our mistakes. Nations like human beings are driven by foolish pride, nationalist goals, racism, jealousies and ambitions of domination.

The major difference in this world of the 21st century is that mankind possesses the means to make itself extinct, nuclear weapons and weaponized diseases being two major methods of mass destruction.

This centennial year should be a challenge to all of us to learn more about our human history and to open our eyes to the mistakes of the past.

More posts to follow on World War I.


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